League One leaders face Southend United this weekend
23 October ~ Gillingham go into tomorrow’s match with Southend United as slightly startled leaders of League One, having accumulated more points and goals than any side in the top four divisions. Performances and results are in stark contrast to the turn of the year when the club languished in the bottom four with a dwindling support which was jaded to the point of comatose.
The story of the improbable turnaround can be told through the influence of three very different management styles. Peter Taylor was dismissed after an ill-timed phone conversation with chairman Paul Scally on New Year’s Eve. Scally had rung with no intention of sacking Taylor, but the manager depressed the chairman to such an extent that he contrived to talk himself out of a job.
It was Taylor’s second spell at Priestfield but he carried surprisingly little credit with supporters despite having been the only manager to lead the club to the Championship in 2000. His stupefying unambitious approach and relentless tinkering through the use of ineffectual loanees led to a collective loss of confidence, the nadir being a meek surrender at home to Bristol City on Boxing Day when his ridiculously cautious tactics resulted in a morbidly grim spectacle.
Inevitably Andy Hessenthaler, the Gills manager twice before, was appointed in temporary charge, he and his three assistants going on to adopt the almost childlike approach of unencumbered attack. The same squad of players suddenly playing in position produced some wildly exciting displays and secured three successive home wins to ensure the new manager wasn’t faced with the immediate stress of a relegation battle.
Scally took his time and appointed Justin Edinburgh as the 11th boss of his 20-year reign. He has a sound track record in picking managers, and the performances of both Gillingham and Edinburgh’s former club Newport County over the last six months are a ringing endorsement of the new man’s talents. The improvement at the tail end of 2014-15 was such that the Gills came close to securing a play-off position. The reality is that Taylor had laid the foundations of a decent squad, but Edinburgh is simply getting so much more out of the resources he inherited.
He’s brought in exclusively young, eager players, setting the side up with pacey full-backs and an attacking midfield while using his contacts to sign Chelsea’s Under-20 captain Jordan Houghton and Cardiff’s Adedeji Oshilaja on loan. The brilliant Bradley Dack took on the early goalscoring responsibility in the absence of the injured Cody McDonald, and the side have simply built on the opening day trouncing of much-fancied (by themselves, anyway) Sheffield United.
Edinburgh has admitted that the scale of the success has surprised him, and the side have ridden their luck by securing the last two victories with stoppage-time winners. Most dared hope for little more than flirtation with the play-offs and are simply looking forward to a rare local fixture in this most northern of divisions with relief that the debilitating negative atmosphere has been lifted from the club. Chris Lynham